Another day, another lawsuit brought against a brewery for infringing on consumer and business understanding of proper terminology. This time around, the company is Walmart and the legal action relates to its Trouble Brewing lineup of “craft” beers.
In case you are unaware, Walmart decided last year to leap into the world of craft beer and take advantage of a growing trend. The world’s largest retailer accomplished this by releasing its own line of beers under the name Trouble Brewing. The assortment of beers includes Cat’s Away IPA, Red Flag Amber Ale, After Party Pale Ale, and ‘Round Midnight Belgian White Ale. The beers are brewed under a special arrangement with Genesee Brewing, a Rochester, New York based operation.
This might all sound innocent enough. After all, lots of large retailers have released their own brands and made deals with other businesses to create products on their behalf. But in this instance, the situation isn’t so innocent, at least not in the mind of Matthew Adam, a Cincinnati, Ohio man who filed the class action lawsuit. His problem is the claim that Trouble Brewing is a “craft” brewery and that its products are craft beer.
According to the lawsuit, Trouble Brewing is a fictional company and promoting this beer as craft beer conflicts directly with the definition of what craft truly is. Among other things, craft beer is normally defined as small batch beer. Trouble Brewing, in contrast, is mass produced. The lawsuit reads:
“Defendant’s craft beer has never been a ‘craft beer,’ nor has it been produced by a craft brewery. Rather, it is a wholesale fiction created by the defendant that was designed to deceive consumers into purchasing the craft beer at a higher, inflated price.”
The lawsuit is demanding that Walmart cease to referring to anything brewed by Trouble Brewing as craft beer. This includes labeling the products as craft beer and advertising as craft beer. In addition, the lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
Here at Great Beer Now, we are all too aware of the number of often frivolous lawsuits brought against breweries for one reason or another. But I must agree, at least in part, to the lawsuit against Walmart. I purchased a 12 pack of Trouble Brewing beer a few months back, just to see what it was like and while I didn’t find any of the beers very memorable, the thing I found even more troubling was the lack of information available on Trouble Brewing. The lack of official information online, the non- existent Trouble Brewing web site, and other issues do, indeed, make it seem like Walmart has something to hide. It appears they do not want consumers to know who is really brewing the beer, how it is brewed, how much is brewed, etc.
One fact that could improve the lawsuit’s success is the definition of crat beer as defined by the Brewers Association. To be true craft beer, the brewer has to be small, independent, traditional, and brew less than six million barrels of beer annually. The operation has to be less than 25 percent owned or controlled by an operation that is not a craft brewer and it has to use only traditional or innovative brewing ingredients. Trouble Brewing may pass a couple of the above criteria, but it certainly will not pass the requirement for small size or the percentage ownership rule. Walmart hasn’t released any figures, but I think it is safe to say that Trouble Brewing is on its way to churning out more than 6 million barrels annually.
Another fact that could help the lawsuit is the way Walmart is promoting the brand on its own store shelves. Rather than place it alongside the Budweiser, Miller, Coors and other mass produced brands, Trouble Brewing beer is placed on the shelves with the craft beer. And since Trouble Brewing beer is priced lower, consumers may be fooled into thinking they are purchasing a true craft beer and make the purchase, due to the bargain price.
Walmart has every right to create its own product lines and sign contractual agreements with outside suppliers and manufacturers but the massive retailer still has to be careful with the way it refers to certain products. There is no telling whether or not Walmart will be forced to retract its craft beer claims for Trouble Brewing because there is no way to know if a judge will base his/her decision on the Brewers Association definition or something else. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting, but I also wouldn’t sweat what happens either way, as Trouble Brewing beers are extremely mediocre at best and do not belong in the refrigerators of anyone who is true to the craft.